Does anyone else associate ABBA with death?
It’s not as weird as it sounds. If you listen closely, many of their glittery on the surface classics have a bracingly dark underside, but who noticed that while shimmying with the girls in the discotheque?
Well, I did. Growing up I noticed how ABBA’s laser focus on all the things that go totally wrong in life made it right past the four part harmonies and the unforgettable piano arrangements. Some of those ABBA lyrics were jaw droppers.
“No more carefree laughter/Silence ever after/Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes/Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye…” Fun!
It turns out the Swedish pop phenomenon had a melancholic underside to match the wickedly cold winters their countrymen are forced to endure. That’s why their pop music is one part summer to two parts permafrost.
And it’s why the Irish really just get them. Underneath all the good cheer we respond to a bit of doom and gloom, and they provided it.
For me the first really explicit ABBA/death association came about in the late 1970s when I was nine and I bought their first Greatest Hits collection. I remember my excitement at seeing the double gatefold sleeve in Hegarty’s record shop on the main street of my Donegal town.
It was 1977 but they were still wearing 1974’s platform shoes. I had to have it.
My father, more of a Beatles man, really needed some persuading, but he could see how determined his second son was. The first record I ever bought was ABBA’s hit single “Dancing Queen,” a year earlier, at the grand old age of eight. That should have been a signal that said ABBA (and a lot more besides) was in my blood.
It so happened that my passion for music was developing at one of the indisputably great moments in pop music history. Disco had just arrived, and with it some of the greatest music ever recorded.
From Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” to Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell,” there was a new sound going around that was turning my Irish bedroom into Studio 54.
And while I was making all these new discoveries my grandmother, a quiet and grave Civil War era matriarch, was making a much more difficult discovery of her own. A discomfort had led her to the doctor and the news was not good. In my house the arrival of the disco era was becoming entwined with the end of hers.
Most Irish people that I talk to speak of their childhoods as a series of mostly happy events that tumbled onward to the storms of adolescence. But for me, and for the ones like me, it was our first glimpse at the idea that nothing was fixed: Not a parent’s love, nor a solemn promise, nor a happy home.
As I unwrapped the LP and put it on the turntable I wasn’t thinking about any of this. All I wanted to hear was celestial harmonies and an irresistible bass line.
“When you're gone/How can I even try to go on?” ABBA sang on “SOS.” “When you're gone/Though I try how can I carry on?”
Later those lines came back to me at the funeral, of all places. It seemed like the whole town had turned out to pay their respects to her. But I was a shy and watchful kid so I preferred to stand back a bit from the main mourners as the priest said his funeral liturgy.
If there was a bright center to the disco universe it wasn’t Donegal, I was discovering, and New York City was a very long way away. But nevertheless, disco music was the music of the endless summer inside me, which was really my own spirit, and its root was joy and it took hold firmly.
Those who love it know that disco has always been bittersweet, a place where young hearts run free but also a place where there’s nothing more to say, and no more ace to play.
In my mind now disco means the dance floor and also the morning after, and that’s what they meant in ABBA’s music too. What they taught me was to hold on to that summer inside of me.
Be ready to dance when you get the chance, because for every knockback you receive a bright day will come when you’ll really want to.